How to Pace Yourself When Running

How to pace yourself when running is a learned skill that seasoned runners learn over time. You don’t just start running and automatically know, “oh yeah, this is the pace I can hold for 3.1 miles.”

Related: How Long Is a 5k?

If you’ve ever watched kids run, or if you remember yourself running as child (remember the Presidential Fitness Challenge?), then you likely remember going out as hard as you can only to be walking about 200 yards later, clutching your side. We have no idea what our physical limits are when running until we get out there and start to learn how fast we can run and how far.

whitney heins running a race
Learning to pace yourself takes experience.

As an adult, how many times have you lamented after the fact that you “went out too fast” in a race? In fact, going out too fast is the number one mistake runners make in a race!

Related: Racing Strategies from a Pro

What’s pacing in running?

And that’s what pacing is. It’s your internal odometer—it’s your brain knowing what your body can handle for how long, and it takes time to calibrate.

So many of the new runners I coach—and the experienced runners I coach who are learning to stop running easy runs in the moderate zone—struggle with figuring out how to pace themselves. For these runners, I often give workouts that help them really tune into how their body is feeling regardless of their watch. It’s trial and error.

The data we get today on the run can further complicate things. How many times have you gone on a run that felt harder than it was and got angry because your watch data didn’t match the effort? Our bodies are complicated structures that are influenced by multiple variables like weather, sleep, nutrition, and stress.

Learning how to tune into your body and tune out the noise so you know how you truly feel can help you hit your target pace.

Related: Why You Should Run Without Your GPS Watch

There are many ways to pace yourself in running, but I am going to focus on learning how to pace yourself by tuning into your body so you truly know what certain speeds feel like.

In this article, I will cover:

  • The different ways to pace yourself in running
  • How to pace yourself in running by running by effort, and
  • Different workouts that teach you how to know what different paces feel like

Let’s after it!

How do I pace myself when running?

You can pace yourself in running by watch pace, heart rate zones, treadmill, breath rate, and rate of perceived exertion (or effort).

Let’s get into this a bit further:

pacing pin
Pin these pacing tips for later!

Watch pace:

Okay, this one should seem very straightforward but running by watch pace can actually get very convoluted as we humans, especially human runners, get caught up in certain perceptions about pace, e.g. “nine-minute pace is too slow, so I will run all my runs faster even if I am gasping for air.” We think certain paces give us certain identities or reputations as runners, and so we ignore our bodies in favor of numbers.

Yet, if you have good data to go on, using watch pace as a GUIDE can be helpful in pacing yourself (guide aka NOT as a rule):

If you have a recent race or time trial to refer to, go to a running pace calculator such as VDOT-02 and input your race time. The race pace calculator will then calculate your training for different zones including easy pace, threshold pace, and interval as well as paces for specific distances. Pretty amazing.

Then, when you are running, you can glance down at your watch to ensure you’re staying in these zones. However, if the effort isn’t matching the workout due to factors such as high heat or lack of sleep, it’s very important to forget pace and run by effort (more on that below).

I recommend setting a cadence for how often you will look at your watch so you don’t get obsessive about it which can create anxiety which can make running feel harder (yikes!). Every half mile is typically a good mark unless your intervals are shorter. Then do every quarter of the distance, for example.

Related: How to Predict Your Marathon Race Pace

Heart rate zones:

Calculating your heart rate zones can be helpful tool in determining your pacing. To get a rough estimate of your max heart rate, take 220 minus your age.

Heart rate zones (or percentages of your max heart rate) will correlate with specific running workouts/effort levels:

  • Zone 1 (50-60% of max): warm-up, cool-down, recovery runs, and shake-outs
  • Zone 2 (60-70% of max): Long runs, easy runs
  • Zone 3 (70-80% of max): Fartleks, progression runs, tempo runs, and hilly route runs
  • Zone 4 (80-90% of max) Tempo and progression runs (near the end), longer intervals like mile repeats
  • Zone 5 (100-90% of max): Intervals like 400s, 200s, 800s, and hills 

So, for example, if I am 42 (which I am), my max heart rate is around 178. Therefore, for a tempo run, my heart rate should be around 150. (Kate Baird, exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, points out this is a ROUGH estimate and this formula doesn’t work well for many people. Indeed, my tempo paces usually have me in the 160s.)

Related: How to Use Heart Rate for Stroller Running

Most smart watches and GPS running watches will calculate heart rate but they can be inaccurate. Get a more accurate heart rate reading by getting a chest heart rate monitor or arm heart rate monitor.

It’s crucial to remember that heart rates can be influenced by many variables including stress and nutrition, so don’t freak out if it is higher than it usually is on a particular run. But do pay attention and try to figure out why it may be:

  • Did you sleep well last night?
  • Could you be getting sick?
  • Are you dealing with life stress?
  • Did you drink more caffeine?
  • Could you be dehydrated?

These are all factors that can raise heart rate.

Related: Garmin Metrics Explained

Treadmill:

The treadmill is also a tool to help you get a feel for how different paces feel. When running on a treadmill, you can play around with paces and see how long you can run at a certain pace.

pacing pin 2
Pin these pacing tips for later!
  • For example, if you are running a pace that you can run all day, but you feel like you are running versus walking through the park, then that’s your easy pace.
  • If you are running a pace that you can hold for about an hour, that’s your threshold pace.
  • A pace that you can hold about 4-6 minutes would be a V02 Max pace.

You can also use the treadmill to do time trials and play with pacing. If you think you can run 5k at a 7-minute pace, then you can try that on a treadmill and adjust as needed.

Remember that treadmills lack wind and terrain resistance, so it’s not exactly the same as on the road. Also, increase incline by about .5%.

Related: Treadmill Running Tips for Busy Runners

Breath rate:

Your breath rate increases as your pace increases. It is a measure of perceived exertion (see below).

For most people:

  • An easy pace is a 3:3 breath to foot strike ration (one inhale for three steps and one exhale for three steps).
  • A tempo pace is 2:2 breathing (two steps for inhale, two steps for exhale).
  • A 2:1 rhythm or 1:2 rhythm is a really hard effort at the end of a race or hard workout.

Paying attention to your breathing rate is an amazing way to tune into your body and tune out the noise. It helps you calibrate your easy pace to ensure you are running easy or hard depending on what’s on the calendar.

Elite runners like Neely Gracey, a 2:29 marathoner, practice this, finding it also helps calm race anxiety.

Related: What is Intuitive Running and Why You Should Try It

Rate of Perceived Exertion:

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is running by how hard the run feels–paying attention to your breath rate, heart rate, sweat rate, and muscle fatigue. The most common perceived exertion scale is 1-10 and looks like this:

  • RPE 1 walking
  • RPE 2 recovery jog or shakeout run
  • RPE 3-4 easy base-building run, warm-up, cool-down

    rpe-scale-for-running
    Run by RPE or rate of perceived exertion when returning to running after COVID. Keep your RPE 3 or below.
  • RPE 5 Marathon pace
  • RPE 6 Half-marathon pace
  • RPE 7 Tempo run
  • RPE 8 Threshold run or cruise intervals
  • RPE 9 VO2 Max intervals
  • RPE 10 anaerobic

Related: How to Run by RPE

You can also know level of exertion you’re running by doing the talk test:

  • RPE 1-4: you should be able to carry on a conversation
  • RPE 5-7: You can speak in short sentences
  • RPE 8-10: Don’t talk to me.

I like learning how to pace yourself running by RPE because it allows you to tune into your body which gives you a more accurate assessment of how your body feels on a given day (better than assumptions you make about the run or what your running watch thinks).

A threshold run could be a 6:20 pace normally but you could have been up all night with your baby and so it’s a 6:40 that day. Running by RPE helps you recalibrate so you run the appropriate intensity and still execute the workout. And guess what!? Your BODY doesn’t know you ran 20 seconds slower per mile. It just knows HOW hard you worked!

It takes a while to accumulate that bevy of knowledge though. That’s where these training runs come in.

Related: How to Improve Your Vo2 Max

Pacing Workouts

Here are workouts to teach you how to pace yourself when running so you don’t flame out or have too much left in the tank at the finish line.

Progression Runs

Progressions are runs where you start at a comfortable pace and gradually run faster each mile of a run.

I LOVE giving my athletes progression runs where they start easy and trim about 10 seconds off per mile so they run negative splits and finish at a fast pace. This teaches them to stay true to their easy and know what it feels like to switch gears and run just a little bit faster (but not too fast). If they end a progression run and are gasping for air, then I know they are running their easy pace too quickly.

It’s a mentally challenging workout but does a great job in teaching how to push but not too hard too soon.

Intervals

Running specific splits or race paces on a track can give you an accurate measure of what different paces feel like (assuming you are feeling good).

Try this: head to the track for a 400s workout. Say your 5k time is 21:00. Try running 400-meter repeats (one lap) at your 5k pace, so 1:40 a lap, with a 90 second rest in between. See how exact you can be.

You can also play around with the time, starting the first two reps slower at say 1:45, then trimming 5 seconds to 5k pace.

Try different distances and a variety of race paces. For example, you can run mile repeats starting at your current projected half-marathon pace, cutting to 10k, 5k, and what you have left. This way you know what those different efforts feel like.

Pay attention to your breath, sweat, and heart rate. Repeat the workouts in your training until you’re able to nail your pacing.

Effort-based runs

Trying to run by a certain effort for a certain distance should help keep you honest about your pace. Tempo runs are great for this.

If you have a 30-minute tempo on the schedule, this should be a moderate pace or 7/10 effort (finishing at an 8). You should be able to speak in short sentences, and you should be able to hold this pace for an hour.

If you are positive splitting or dying at the end of the workout, then you went out too fast.

I find it helpful to pay attention to the distance or reps I have ahead of me in calculating how hard I will go out. I will ask myself, “can I hold this pace for X distance/reps?” If I don’t think so, I will hold back OR I will hold it for a mile and check back in.

Even splits

pacing post
You can learn how to pace yourself several ways.

Challenging yourself to run even splits (consistent paces) can help you learn what different paces feel like. When you head out for a run, do your warm-up, then try to run a specific pace for the rest of your run like 8-minute pace. It it’s an easy day, pick a pace that’s easy.

If it’s a hard run day, you can pick different paces and play around. You can see what it feels like to run 6:30 for half a mile or all out for 200 meters, for example. This teaches you your RPE at those paces. Do this a month later and see how that feels.

Time trials

Time trials (or races) help you pace yourself beautifully—especially if we fail!

If you do a 5k time trial and flame out, then you know you went too fast, for example. If you had too much left, you need to speed up. Note what went well and what didn’t and try it again a few weeks later.

Long accelerations

This one comes from the great author and running coach Matt Fitzgerald.

Long accelerations entail speeding up gradually for a specific amount of time. You start with easy jogging and then finish running at maximum effort.

Fitzgerald recommends starting with a 3-minute interval in a run, growing to 6, 11, and then stacking 3-, 6-, and 11-minute-long accelerations in a single run (with a couple of minutes of easy running in between intervals).

Long accelerations help build pacing skill by exposing you to different speeds and how they feel. 

It takes patience (as all good things do) to build the skill of pacing but it will set you up for race day success!

If you want guidance with your running goals, including downhill race goals, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:

 

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